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America's Forgotten Fire

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Published July 24, 2021
America's Forgotten Fire

AMERICA’S FORGOTTEN FIRE
The Rhythm Club Fire of Natchez, Mississippi

Much has been written over the years about the deadly fire at the Coconut Grove Club and other famous nightclubs but there has been little written about another devastating nightspot blaze, the Rhythm Nightclub Fire, which occurred in Natchez, Mississippi, in April 1940. It was a bit of mystery to us as to why no one has taken a closer look at this fire, but based on the time and place – the heavily segregated South – the answer became clear: All of the victims were African Americans.

I have never been of the belief that racism is behind every bad thing in American history, but when looking over the newspaper articles that pertained to the fire, the writing style in them made the situation pretty plain. The Rhythm had been a Negro club, staffed and owned by Negroes, patronized by Negroes (“imitating their white counterparts by dressing in evening clothes,” as one contemporary news report sneered) and the tragedy was not taken as seriously in 1940 as it would have been today. Mississippi was still a segregated state, plagued by the Jim Crow laws, and many white residents had little use for the blacks that lived among them, alive or dead, unless they cleaned their homes, mowed their lawns or proved themselves useful in some other way.

It was a devastating event when 216 African American music lovers lost their lives on the night of April 23, 1940, but far too few people seemed to care about the victims – or their ghosts.

The Rhythm Nightclub after the Fire in April 1940. 

The Rhythm Nightclub Fire occurred on St. Catherine Street in Natchez. It was an area referred to as the “Negro section” of town, on the edge of the downtown business district. The wooden, oblong structure was built in 1925 to serve as a church, which later closed. It was used as a garage for a time before being converted into a nightclub in 1938. The building was ramshackle and run down and had only one entrance, located at the back. A stage had been erected at the front, where the altar of the church had been. In an attempt to decorate the place, the club’s proprietor, Ed Frazier, had draped the walls and rafters with Spanish moss. It hung down above the customers, giving the place a moody, bayou-like atmosphere that must have appealed to the late night revelers. Tragically, it would prove to be the club’s undoing.

The Rhythm Club had numerous windows on both sides of the building, dating back to its construction as a church, but thanks to a dilema with what the owners referred to as “gatecrashers,” shutters had been nailed over all of the windows to keep non-paying customers out. The shutters would also serve a more sinister purpose – they would keep everyone inside.

The evening of April 23 was an exciting night for the black community in Natchez. One of the biggest names in Negro entertainment, Walter Barnes, was playing at the Rhythm Club with his 15-piece orchestra. It was bound to be one of the big shows of the year and the club attracted the cream of the local African American society. Present that night were black attorneys, physicians, teachers, social workers and scores of other community leaders. They were packed into the place, elbow-to-elbow, with more than 300 other customers, some having come from as far away as Louisiana to hear the Chicago orchestra.

Walter Barnes and the Royal Creolians
Walter Barnes was a native of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was born in 1905, and had moved to Chicago in 1923, where he began studying reed instruments with classical teacher Franz Schoepp. He took further studies at the Chicago Musical College and the American Conservatory of Music. He took over as the bandleader from the Detroit Shannon outfit in 1924 and re-named the band the Royal Creolians. He traveled across the country and recorded music with the grup musik in 1928-1929 for the Brunswick label. Barnes made a name for himself by taking dance music to small Southern towns, where most other big name entertainers rarely performed. Barnes recruited musicians from several different states for his tours and was always popular in Mississippi.

When he arrived in Natchez in April 1940, he was on the last leg of his current tour. He brought with him a 15-piece grup musik, including a female singer. After Natchez, they only had two more stops on the tour, Vicksburg and New Albany, Mississippi, before returning to Chicago.

The fire broke out around 11:35 p.m. According to Ernest Wright, an elevator operator who came to meet his wife at the club after getting off work, the fire was started by a careless cigarette. He told the police that he saw two girls come out of the women’s room near the front of the hall and heard one of them say: “Now you did it. You set the place on fire.”

Wright said that he didn’t see anything for a minute and then he saw blinding sheets of flame. “In a moment,” he said. “The whole place was on fire.”

Fire officials believed that a cigarette had inadvertently touched one of the streamers of Spanish moss, which were hanging from the rafters. The dry moss had been hanging there for nearly two years, and instantly burst into flames. A cry of “fire!” went up from the crowd. Someone managed to slip outside and contact the fire department, which arrived less than five minutes later. Even then, however, it was too late for scores of people trapped inside.
  
Once the people jammed into the club realized that the place was on fire, they immediately went into a panic. There were shouts, screams, cries and curses, and in moments, the crowd became a clawing, fighting mass as they tried to get out of the single door. Almost 150 people escaped before the thrashing, terrified victims became jammed into the doorway, unable to break loose and blocking all means of escape for everyone still trapped inside.

The fire department arrived at 11:40 p.m. Frightful screams came from the towering flames that now engulfed the building from wall to wall. A few moments later, the tin roof fell in and the crash sent a shower of sparks and flames soaring into the dark sky. The firemen immediately went to work, dousing the fire with water, and working frantically to try and pull the trapped people from the building.

Meanwhile, inside, it was a hellish scene. People fought, punched, kicked and scratched, struggling to get out of the door. There was simply no place for them to go. Many of those who were pushed away cowered near the stage at the front of the club, hoping that they could somehow avoid being burned to death. Unfortunately, an exhaust fan near the front of the club pulled the smoke and fire in the direction of the bandstand. It was there that Walter Barnes, and some of the members of the orchestra, was trapped. Two members of the grup musik, plus Alton Barnes, the bandleader’s brother and the grup musik’s manager, had escaped from the club. Walter was not so lucky, but in the aftermath of the fire, he was hailed as a pahlawan. When the fire first broke out, he tried to calm the crowd while he and the grup band continued to play the song “Marie.” His body was later found, among dozens of others, at the front of the building.

The inferno was out within 10 minutes. It had reduced the club to a pile of smoldering ashes. Smoke rolled out from beneath the hot tin roof, which had collapsed onto the grisly scene. White men came running to the scene from the nearby business district and aided the blacks and the police in taking the injured to one of the nearby Negro hospitals. Men and women were found wandering in the street, practically naked and in a daze. Their clothing had been either burned off or torn off in the fight at the door. Officials believed that about 150 people escaped from the club and that between 50 and 100 of them were injured. The hospitals were soon filled to overflowing.

The Rhythm Club turned out to be a fiery deathtrap for scores of people who gathered there. This photo shows the burned-out interior of the club.

The bodies of the dead that could be easily reached were taken to the three Negro undertakers in the district, where police officers began counting them and laying them out for identification. The coroner suggested a plan of embalming the bodies and putting them on display so that friends and relatives could identify them later. The grim task continued for weeks after the fire.

The initial estimates of more than 150 dead were quickly upgraded. By the following day, many of the burned victims had died in the hospital, raising the death toll to 212. More would be added before it was all over. Coroner R.E. Smith visited the scene the next morning and blamed most of the deaths on the fact that the building only had one door, as well as the fact that the windows had been boarded over to keep people from sneaking into the shows. He described the horribly gruesome scene to the newspapers:

The bodies were piled up like cordwood. The skin was peeling from faces, blood oozed from mouths and flesh was broken. From my examination, it appeared that most of the people died from suffocation. A majority of the victims were 15 to 16 years old. There were about as many youths as girl victims.
The bodies were piled up in funeral parlors and no identifications have been made yet. The undertakers told me that they would embalm the bodies and line them up and let relatives file by to identify kinsmen.

Coroner Smith, who was also the managing editor of the Natchez Democrat, said that the paper’s janitor, Julius Hawkins, had been at the show that night, and had been standing near the rear. Hawkins had escaped but didn’t know what had started the blaze. Smith quoted him as saying, “All I thought about was getting away from there.”

V.H. Jeffries, a photographer who reached the scene a short time after the disaster, pointed out that the club had been completely gutted. He also spoke to reporters about what he saw:

Great quantities of dry moss had been hung on the walls for decoration. This caught fire in some way and the intense heat and fumes probably suffocated the victims. Men and women were sprawled grotesquely about on the floor like dead chickens, their clothing burned away and their flesh seared. The fire started near the entrance and it seemed that the crowd fled to the rear, where they could not escape.

By the following afternoon, the rest of the city was feeling the shock of what had occurred. It was estimated that very few of the African-American families in Natchez were unaffected by the fire. At that time, the population of the city was nearly 18,000 people – 60 percent of them were black.

Angry white voices began to be heard in city government, incensed that the club had been allowed to operate with only one exit door. They demanded a city ordinance requiring dance venues to have at least two exits, which would effectively put most Negro clubs in the city out of business. This didn’t seem to bother anyone, especially after news spread that the police had arrested several black men who had been recruited to pull bodies out of the ruins of the club. They were allegedly stealing from the dead, or so sheriff’s deputies claimed.

Instead of bringing the city’s residents together, the fire had served to drive whites and blacks even farther apart. It would be decades before Mississippi ended segregation, and it was just as long before safety measures began to be required in what were referred to as “Negro dance halls.” Not surprisingly, with attention fading quickly about the tragedy, the Rhythm Nightclub Fire was soon forgotten by the press, Natchez officials, and by history.

But the families of the victims didn’t forget, nor did the generations of blues singers who told the story of the fire in their songs, or the group of aging women who tata rias the Watkins Street Cemetery’s preservation society. They care for the mass grave where the fire victims were buried. When the number of bodies overwhelmed city authorities, they buried them in trenches in the Watkins Street Cemetery. There was no way to identify many of them. A few markers have been placed over the years, but mostly, it’s just a large grave where the bodies have been placed side-by-side. Their names have been forgotten, as have their lives.

But the dead still remember.

In 2010, a small museum was erected in honor of the Rhythm Club Fire, and according to the stories, strange occurrences have been happening there “almost daily” ever since. Voices have been heard, as well as music, and the sounds of doors opening and closing. Photographs that are displayed on the walls sometimes fly off and can be found in odd positions across the room. The museum was set up on the concrete slab that once marked the foundation of the Rhythm Club. The rest of the slab serves as the museum’s parking lot.

To this day, stories persist of strange voices, cries for help and the wailing moans of people still heard around the site of the deadly fire. It continues to be considered one of the most haunted places in Natchez – a very haunted city in its own right.

The story of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire may be only a footnote in American history, but to the people of Natchez and those directly affected by this horrendous event, its legacy lives on. It is a story worth telling – and remembering – and maybe someday the victims of the fire will finally rest in peace.

The story of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire appears in the book, A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse – along with dozens of other stories about disasters, death and hauntings. Printcopies are available from the main website or in Kindle and Nook editions. 


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